Madder (red):
Madder was cultivated in the Near East and Europe. The plant was 3-10 ft high and the dye was made from its roots. The plant was left in the soil for 24-30 months before harvest. The dye was from the skin of the root and its woody heart, each root about the thickness of a pencil. Asian farmers tried to make the roots larger to get more dye but Europeans were able to get more from making the roots longer instead. The roots are cleaned, dried, and then ground into powder. They were used in Ancient times but were lost to Europe from around 400 to 700 AD, and were brought back in the 900s. During the middle ages, red dye was favored almost as much as purple. Holland was the main place for growing madder, then Spain and a little in France.

Back to top

Indigo (blue):
Originally from India (very old use). One of the most popular dyes used in the later medieval ages, since it held very well to fabric. Made from the leaf of a plant soaked in water. The dye was also used for paint and cosmetics. Expensive since only the leaves gave dye and each only a small amount. The plant is around 3-5 ft high and harvested twice a year. The leaves are steeped in water 9-14 days, then put into vats to be beaten so as to oxidize the dye. While in the vat it changes from a yellow color to dark blue. It is then left inside for two hours, and then the water is drained. The slug is boiled to stop the fermentation, the strained and left to congeal into a paste; it is then cut into bars to ship. Thought by Europeans until the 1700s to be a mineral from India. Venice, Italy was the first place in Europe to use indigo. Not really used in Europe until the 1400s/1500s, since it had to be shipped by water. Laws were passed in parts of Europe to prohibit its use because of the powerful woad guild members who considered it a threat to their blue dye.

Back to top

Woad (blue):
2-5 ft high plant. The dye comes from the leaves. Originated in Southern Europe and Turkey but spread up to England and Sweden. Leaves are crushed to pulp and placed into small heaps to dry out. These are then kneaded into five pound balls and left to dry for four weeks. They are then ground into a powder, spread on a floor two to three inches thick, sprinkled with water until they form a paste, and are left to ferment for nine weeks. It took a lot of the plant to make any pigment, about a 9:1 ratio, but the plant was abundant and used cheap land, so was a good crop to grow. Young leaves produced a light blue.

Back to top

Other Dyes

  • Red: brazilwood, kermes
  • Yellow: weld
  • Purple: various lichens
  • Black: iron oxide (esp. Denmark)
  • Brown: tree bark and nuts


  • Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001.

Back to Industrial Technology